Comment

Defining the Fringe

The democracy that allowed current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the opportunity to hold the post is definitely in danger. While Modi travels the globe building Brand India and strengthening its ties to countries across the world, waves of intolerance (social, political and religious) threaten to destroy the very stability he is trying to build.  Another right-wing Hindu party, the Shiv Sena, which proudly wears the badge of an intolerant Hindutva ideology has actively contributed to India’s image as a lawless, intolerant society by threatening to disrupt events which would begin an engaging dialogue with the country’s controversial neighbour, Pakistan. I say controversial because opinions about our northern neighbour range from honestly friendly to superiorly hostile. The political party threatened to disrupt the launch of a book, entitled Neither a Hawk nor a Dove: An Insider’s Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy, written by former Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. The memoir was launched although the righteous sainiks successfully threw ink on the face of “the main organizer and former journalist Sudheendra Kulkarni.” Undoubtedly the Sena has its own valuable reasons for trying to hinder efforts which would bring much needed peace and cooperation to the region, but does the Modi government want to appear as though it can be easily bullied by its alliance partner? The next step may well be handing the reign of the government to the established conservative Hindu, non-governmental  groups, like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or perhaps the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

Media across the world has reported the lynching of a Muslim man in Bishara, India for allegedly consuming beef. Read that line again and you would wonder when the answer to disapproving of an individual’s dietary choices, which in this case were simply a rumour, became to kill him or her. For anyone who is aware of the communal flames that fan Modi’s past, making connections between the massacre of Muslims in the year 2002 and trends such as these is not difficult. And it only serves to make us more cynical (in case we weren’t already) about our alleged messiah. This creates an atmosphere of fear, apprehension and mistrust which will threaten the foundations of a country known and applauded for its diversity.  In light of a recent event, where an Australian couple was harassed (by the fringe and the police) on account of a tattoo one of them wore, one is forced to wonder if the idea of a tolerant, inclusive democracy was no more than just that. For a country which celebrated its Independence in the shadow of Partition, religious violence and intolerant attitudes are not new. It is worth considering that before the Modi government took charge of New Delhi, books challenging the established narratives have been banned, moral (mind) policing has taken place, a mosque has been demolished and as you read this, the Modi bhakts and trolls, will provide a sterling example of intolerance in its most accessible form.

Arguably, the presence of an openly conservative Hindu government in New Delhi has spurred on these already existing poisonous elements of society who probably believe that now that ‘their man’ is in office it is a free-for-all situation. It also highlights the sinister reality that a large chunk of the population may have voted for the Prime Minister due to his pro-Hindu credentials as much as for his promises of development and change. It is imperative to understand, at this point in this article, that being Hindu does not translate to being anti-Muslim or anybody else although many groups would like to project it as such. The question is that has the average Indian absorbed, or been allowed to absorb, values like democracy, independent thinking and tolerance. I would argue that they haven’t, given that practices such as honour killing, opposition to inter-caste and (heaven forbid) inter-religious marriage, hostility to women’s rights and a determination to hold onto outdated practices which are no longer relevant. Artists are often forced to bow before a lawless political class, as film maker Karan Johar proved when he had to apologize to the political party the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) for the use of the word ‘Bombay’, not ‘Mumbai’, to describe the financial capital in his film Wake up Sid! In a similar situation, acclaimed artist M. F Hussain was the victim of a ‘Hindutva hate campaign’, which finally forced him to give up his citizenship and adopt a Qatari citizenship.

Hussain’s example highlights how allowing right wing religious parties to act against the law, encompassing freedom of religious choice and of expression, only encourages individuals to distance themselves from their Indian identities and roots for which tolerant individual would want to be associated with lawless backwardness. In his first Independence Day speech, the Prime Minister called for the country “to walk together, to work together and to progress together” which has been directly contradicted by his delayed response to religious violence. He advocated for a more transparent governance, but the actions unchecked anti-social individuals and groups do not allow the citizenry to trust the government, which already appears to be the case. In his trips overseas he has encouraged young Indians to come home and serve the country. If one assumes that individuals are rational actors, as the science of economics does, would one be incentivised to return to a boiling, anarchical society regardless of feelings of patriotism. I am not undermining or questioning individual or collective patriotism, which I believe is very personal in nature, but it is not enough to reverse the ongoing phenomenon of what is popularly called the “Brain Drain”.

In conclusion, it is important to understand and to identify who the lawless fringe is and what we can do as individuals and as a society to curb the. Are we knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly supporting them?  Do we wait on the side lines and witness the rampage and do nothing? In what spheres of life are we intolerant and do we feel the need to change our behaviour?   As there is no clear definition or agreement of what being Indian or the idea of India itself means, there are surely no easy answers to these questions. But they are worth deliberating. In a larger context, there are multiple definitions which need to be expressed or, in a hostile environment, to be allowed to be expressed. The instances of religious, political and social intolerance prevent this and it is the government’s obligation to uphold the guarantees provided by the Constitution. Although the Prime Minister is not messiah with solutions to all problems it is in his interest to do so, for it will define his legacy. The question is not whether India can change, or as is often implied improve, but whether it wants and chooses to do so.